Why, When and How the ‘Letting Go’ Discussion in Leadership
It’s inevitable. No matter how hard you try, there will be a time in leadership when you have to let someone go. As companies grow and change, the people inside them grow and change, too. So what once was a good fit may no longer be one as the company evolves.
A continuous mistake I’ve seen managers make across the board is holding on to people who are no longer a good fit for their organization. I know I’ve done it, and I learned some tough lessons. The reality is that when we don’t know when to let go, the business suffers—and the people suffer. It has a huge impact. Yet so often, in my experience, I watch managers ignore this reality. Why is this?
Why It’s Hard To Let Someone Go
Based on my experience, here are a few reasons:
• The Burden Of Being Understaffed: Being understaffed is challenging. You and your team might already be struggling to get your work done; however, improper staffing and bad chemistry on a team can be more damaging than losing someone who isn’t working out.
• Fear Of Conflict: Confrontation can be intimidating. As I see people struggle with the “letting go” conversation, I genuinely am curious and ask, “Why do you see letting someone go as a negative conversation?” After being in HR for over 25 years, I’ve learned that the “letting go” conversation doesn’t have to be conflict-oriented.
• Concerns About The Impact On Your Team: Moving someone on will always affect the rest of the team. If you have an open dialogue with your team and approach this as a positive experience for all involved, this is a chance to increase trust and unite your team as you move forward.
When It’s Time To Let Someone Go
Here are several reasons you might need to let someone go:
• Company Growth And Evolution: As your company grows, you’ll need people with different skills. Not everyone would be a fit today, even if they were a great fit a few years ago. They might not have the skills they need to take your company to the next level. If they also don’t want to learn those skills, it’s time to move on.
• Setbacks: A different side of company evolution is that sometimes you face a setback. I’ve learned so often by working in the biotech industry that many variables are outside of a company’s control. In biotech, a delay in a study or trial can change things quickly, and sadly, in most companies, many people can’t recover. So again, as a leader, you’ll need to decide to let people move on to their next journey.
• Performance And Other Factors: Someone could be a great performer but is resistant to change or develops a negative attitude. This can have a lasting impact on your culture. Sometimes these issues can be discussed and worked around, but not always. Having open dialogue regularly with each of your employees can allow both sides to offer honest and constructive feedback. When that dialogue is closed off, you should use discretion and evaluate if there is a better fit for your employee and your organization.
How To Let Someone Go
Feedback is a gift, whether constructive, developmental or positive. If you don’t give feedback because you are afraid of conflict, it’s a disservice to your people and can impact the rest of the organization.
As a leader, remember to keep perspective. In her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, Kim Scott gives a straightforward model: As a leader, giving direct but kind feedback will make the most significant impact. Scott also says, “Feedback is personal for the person receiving it. Most of us pour more time and energy into our work than anything else in our lives. Work is a part of who we are, and so it is personal.” Let that perspective filter into all your conversations at work.
It’s OK for somebody’s journey at your company to end, but remember that being let go can be hard feedback to receive. The key is to be direct, kind and transparent.
I’ve run into people I’ve had these hard conversations with years later, and they thanked me for helping them adapt and improve their career journeys. By assisting them in letting go and figuring out what steps they needed to take to find the right next role, both sides grew and moved on to meet bigger and better goals.
The Other Side Of The Coin: An Employee Wants To Leave
I’ve had employees approach me, explaining that they felt like their journey with our company was over. When an employee feels like it is time to move on, the conversation can go in two directions:
• Yes, I agree with you. Let’s figure out what makes sense. We can help you network and find what’s right for you.
• Why do you want to move on? We can talk through this. We can get creative. Let’s invest in you.
When someone wants to move on, I am happy when they come to me to share what they are thinking, and together we can address issues they feel may need to be resolved for them to stay. I’d rather have a two-way conversation to make adjustments than find a resignation letter on my desk. The reality is that open dialogue starts with investing in employees from the moment they walk in on their first day. Investing in your people will pay off in the long run and will keep the right people around.
1. Consistently engaging with your team and having open dialogue can be a great way to build trust in your team and retain the people you want to keep.
2. Letting go of someone can be a positive and productive experience for both sides.
3. Remember to give direct but kind feedback when it is time to let go. Make your goal to help them find the next step in their career journey.
The “letting go” conversation doesn’t need to be dreaded. Leaders have the opportunity to approach letting go as a collaborative process.